by Rabbi Kevin Kleinman
I was 14 when I first passed through URJ Camp Harlam’s gates. While I had been attending other sleep away camps since I was 8, I did not know what to expect from this camp. How would I be treated as a newbie? What made Harlam a Jewish camp? Would I like those aspects of the camp experience?
Within hours of arriving and unpacking, I was on the basketball court making friends and becoming initiated into the culture of Harlam’s particular camp community. On the first Friday night of the session, I sat on the wooden benches in the Chapel on the Hill for a Friday night Shabbat service overlooking the rolling hills of the Pocono Mountains. Little did I know then, when I was surrounded by bunkmates who were quickly becoming my best friends, how much my first summer at Camp Harlam would shape my Jewish identity and impact my desire to become a Reform rabbi.
Over the course of the next six years that I spent at Camp Harlam as a camper and counselor and on the NFTY in Israel trip, I continued to develop meaningful relationships with my peers and with our counselors. Additionally, each summer, rabbinic students, rabbis, cantors and educators from area synagogues spent time up at camp. They taught classes and helped us prepare services, but they also spent time playing basketball, guitar, and hanging out with the campers and staff.
These informal hangout times created a space for us to ask the faculty questions about Judaism and spirituality, in addition to discussing music and sports, and inevitably led to conversations about what life as a rabbi was like. When I was 17 years old, I began to seriously think about becoming a rabbi, in large part due to rabbinic role models and mentors I met at camp and in NFTY. They encouraged and trained me and my friends to become leaders at camp and in the Reform Movement.
This positive energy toward living an engaged, Jewish life was contagious for my cohort at camp. Out of the 32 of us that went on to become CIT’s, five went on to become HUC-ordained rabbis! The five of us have often discussed how our experiences at Camp Harlam were fundamental in shaping the type of professional that we wanted to become. Each of us felt connected to the spirituality of camp – found both during Shabbat and throughout the week at song sessions. Each of us felt mentored formally and informally by the rabbinic and professional staff at camp. Each of us could not imagine doing anything with our lives other than continuing to be part of the leadership of the Reform Movement.
Last summer I returned to Camp Harlam as a faculty member after a ten year hiatus from Kunkletown, PA. I am a rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel (KI) in Elkins Park, PA where there is a strong commitment to sending children to Camp Harlam. We send more campers there then any other congregation in the region. KI, like many other synagogues throughout the country, has made it a priority for our staff to serve as faculty members at URJ camps during the summer.
I now find myself on the other side of the mentoring process at camp. Today, I am the rabbi who plays basketball and guitar with campers – in addition to helping them plan services and teach informal education classes for campers and staff. I am now the one who gets asked those important life questions by teenagers who are developing their own spiritual identities. I am now the one identifying the future leaders of the Reform Movement and helping them to develop Jewish leadership skills.
Being a rabbi at camp is not much different from any other position there. The rabbis are fully immersed in the daily life of camp. We play softball and swim in the lake. We go to services and sing at song sessions. The biggest difference for me is that I am now also part of the Keneseth Israel family. I couldn’t go anywhere on Opening Day without running into members of my congregation getting their children settled at camp. Everywhere I look in the dining hall, I see familiar faces. It is such a good feeling knowing that our congregation, like so many others, is committed to Reform Jewish camping and therefore the future of our movement. Camp Harlam is truly a place where traditions pass from generation to generation, and I am privileged to be a part of protecting this chain.
Rabbi Kevin Kleinman is the assistant rabbi at reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA.